Surrealism History

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Surrealist thought began in 1920 and at its roots it was about freeing the expression of the unconscious.  Surrealism has been defined in two ways in poet Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924:

  • Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought.  Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation (later qualified by Breton, saying “in the absence of conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship”).
  • Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Due to the fact that World War I loomed large during this movement, Surrealists were influenced by it.  The feeling was that the rational thinking of the Industrial Revolution was the cause of the war and the antidote to such thinking and their obvious results was to turn to the irrational and the dream-state.  Thus, the art during this time period is portrayed as such, with the use of a restrictive overlay of false rationality, which included social and academic convention, on the free-functioning of the instinctual urges of the human mind.

The Surrealists took to the theories of Sigmund Freud, specifically his ideas on unconscious thought and how it influences human behavior.   Freud promoted the idea that free association and dream analysis and believed these would work to reveal unconscious thought.  Surrealism was also heavily influenced by the Dada.  It may even be considered an extension or offshoot of this group.  This was a group that was not about art.  It was about anti-art and they sought to protest the barbarism of war.  Everything art was, the Dada was not.  If they felt that art was to have meaning, they would strive to express no meaning through their work.  Where art was meant to be appealing, they worked to offend.  They were the truly rebellious group and they had something that appealed to the Surrealists.  Other influences for the Surrealist artists were G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx.

Despite these seemingly serious influences, Surrealist artists also drew on many diverse sources for inspiration.  These include Clark Ashton Smith, Montague Summers, Horace Walpole, Fantomas, The Residents, Bugs Bunny, comic strips, the obscure poet Samuel Greenberg, and the hobo writer and humorist T-Bone Slim.  Non-western cultures were also an inspiration to Surrealists because it was believed that these cultures had been able to find a better balance reason and imagination than those of the western world.

Surreal artists were not consistent when it came to politics.  In some areas of the world they were simply concerned with their art while in others politics and political messages were their main goal.  Then there were those that strove to integrate the two.  When they were political, they were extremely left-wing and they even bordered on communist.  It is clear that the Surrealists did not merely consider themselves to be artists, but that this was a truly revolutionary movement.

Surrealism had a far reaching effect on the world, particularly in politics.  Some Surrealists actually joined radical political groups, movements, and parties while others influenced people solely through the impact of their art, which encouraged the freedom of the imagination and the liberation from repressive and archaic social structures.

Salvador Dali was the painter who brought the Surrealist movement to the canvass in the 1920s and 1930s, although he did not remain a member of the group as he had arguments with Breton and was ultimately kicked out.  He went on to create his very famous dreamscapes and dream-like images.  Like Dali, other Surrealist artists captured the dream-like state using a lot of content and technique.  They celebrated the art of children and they also celebrated primitive art because they felt that the untrained eye was better able to put their imagination onto the canvass because they were more liberated.  These were often incorporated into their own work.

Unfortunately, all were not happy with the Surreal movement.  Feminists felt that it was a male dominated movement and that they expressed stereotypical attitudes toward women.  As for Freud, he was more interested in the Surrealists conscious mind despite the fact that he was their main inspiration for delving into the subconscious.  Surrealism had a significant influence on Abstract Expressionism and Magic Realism.  One of the major attractions of Surrealist artists is that they managed to keep the content of their paintings expressive and alive, giving an alternative to the geometric shapes used in art so freely during the 20th century.

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